When the United Nations votes this week on continued seating of the Pol Pot regime as the recognized government of Cambodia, the real Jimmy Carter will finally have to stand up.
Will it be Jimmy Carter, champion of human rights around the world? In that case, the United States' vote will have to be against the regime.
Or will it be Jimmy Carter, global strategist, hoping to play the two communist superpowers, Russia and China, off against each other? In that case, the United States will support China's client Pol Pot, instead of the Soviet Union's Vietnamese puppet.
At this point, State Department insiders are glumly predicting that Carter, at the insistence of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, will decide that global strategy considerations outweigh human rights concerns. wThey are convinced, from signals the White House has been giving lately, that the United States will vote for Pol Pot just as it did last year.
Opposition to the expected support for Pol Pot has come from the State Department's Human Rights Bureau, as well as from certain members of the East Asian Bureau. "But they feel it's a losing battle, even as they're arguing," one source confided to my associate Lucette Lagnado.
Indeed, some sources fear the critical decision has been made to reaffirm last year's U.N. vote. This would present a political problem for Carter: if he orders continued support of the government of Pol Pot, he will rekindle the outrage of liberals whose support he badly needs in November.
The decision on Cambodia is one the administration would dearly love to put off until after the election. Since that cannot be, the White House is doing the next best thing: it is refusing to announce its decision until the last possible moment.
By denying that a decision has been made, Carter hopes to refuse the critics of his Cambodian policy, both in Congress and at the State Department, Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.), Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) and almost a dozen of their House colleagues recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Muskie asking what the administration had decided to do on the Cambodia recognition vote. They received a polite, noncommittal response, repeating the administration's assertion that the matter was being reviewed.
While potential critics of a decision in favor of Pol Pot have thus been disarmed by delaying tactics, lobbying in favor of Pol Pot has been intense. The pressure on the admiration is coming from Communist China and the five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.
Concerned about possible trouble from Congress, the five ASEAN ambassadors in Washington visited Capitol Hill for a secret meeting with members of the House Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee. They reiterated their countries' support for the Pol Pot regime against the puppet government put there by the Vietnamese invaders.
The administration had argued that it is "locked into" reaffirming its 1979 vote, and that failing to do so would be tantamount to recognizing Vietnamese aggression. They also stress the strategic necessity of mollifying China and the ASEAN countries.
The argument had even been made that a vote against a Pol Pot would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to Israel's ouster from the United Nations.
All the technical and strategic arguments, however, do not weigh as heavily with administration critics as the simple issue of human rights. Their hope -- admittedly a slim one -- is that Jimmy Carter will decide that he cannot afford to embrace the Pol Pot regime in the middle of an election campaign.